After the massive success of both "Dracula" and "Frankenstein" helped save Universal from the Depression crisis of 1931-32 it was only a matter of time before their two iconic stars finally worked together in the same film. 'Karloff' (as the actor would be billed for the first of five times, all for Universal) had been away from the studio since 1932's "The Mummy," the Laemmles failing to honor his promised pay raise, while 'Lugosi' had gone missing even longer, since the failure of his lone follow up to "Dracula," "Murders in the Rue Morgue," emerging triumphantly from bankruptcy waiting for the next offer from Uncle Carl. By February 1934 the stars had aligned to team the genre legends in what promised to be a duel to the death between Karloff's Austrian architect Hjalmar Poelzig and Lugosi's Hungarian psychiatrist Dr. Vitus Werdegast in "The Black Cat," the brainchild of recently signed director and production designer Edgar G. Ulmer. Junior Laemmle indulged the young maverick with his bold Bauhaus blueprint for the Poelzig residence, hardly the cobwebbed, crumbling castle of Gothic legend but a spotless modern home with doors that slide open, and the space to shelter a cult of devil worshippers in service to High Priest Poelzig. Bela's Werdegast refers to Poelzig as 'an old friend' to American mystery author Peter Alison (David Manners) and newlywed bride Joan (Jacqueline Wells), having spent 15 years in a Siberian prison during the Great War only to emerge with renewed hope of finding his lost wife and daughter. Far from being a 'friend,' Poelzig had been a traitor to the cause at Fort Marmaros, selling out to the Russians and allowing one of the 'great battlefields of the war' to be strewn with thousands of corpses, now living at the same location in an abode of his own architectural creation. Werdegast has followed the trail here, forced to make an unexpected call upon Poelzig after a road accident in the rain results in a dead bus driver and wounded Joan Alison. The Majordomo (Egon Brecher) announces this untimely arrival and we see Karloff for the first time, rising in his private bedchamber, straight up like a vampire from his coffin, remaining silent much of the time while observing others with sardonic intent. Since the next Satanic orgy takes place the following evening Poelzig is quite entranced by the virginal Mrs. Alison (she covers herself up from one of his sidelong glances), having preserved the corpses of numerous female sacrifices over the years...including the wife of Vitus Werdegast, with whom he was also wed (and, perversely, has subsequently married the woman's daughter). In his quest for vengeance Werdegast must tread lightly on his enemy's home turf, victimized by ailurophobia (Poelzig: "an intense and all consuming horror of cats"), instructing his servant Thamal (Harry Cording) to serve the master, and finally demanding the whereabouts of his wife. In revealing the horror of her fate Poelzig also succeeds in luring the psychiatrist into a trap, the sight of a black cat preventing Werdegast from shooting his foe ("are we any less victims of the war than those whose bodies were torn asunder, are we not both the living dead?"). Poelzig also claims victory in a chess game for the life of Joan Alison, a prisoner until the evening's unholy festivities, meeting Madame Poelzig (Lucille Lund), the daughter of Vitus Werdegast, instantly earning her husband's wrath and paying a fatal price. One unknown actor in a mustache playing a tall cult member can be spotted as Karloff descends the staircase, seen on the left with his back to the camera, then walking behind Boris before seating himself at the organ, his hands and the back of his head shown close up; this was the third Universal title for John Carradine, granted a few lines in both "The Invisible Man" and "Bride of Frankenstein" but unfortunately silent here. With the helpless Joan unconscious on the altar, Poelzig is only distracted by a scream from one exuberant female, allowing Werdegast and Thamal to abscond with her for escape through the cellar. Peter Alison is already armed and able to defend his bride, who manages to inform the doctor of his daughter's fate from a few hours before, Poelzig intent on a final showdown from which no one shall survive. The sight of a half naked Karloff held captive upon his own rack as Lugosi prepares to flay him alive (depicted in shadow of course) amazingly reached the screen intact, one of the last pre-code titles to escape relatively unscathed from censorship trauma though Uncle Carl himself was appalled, at least until the box office rang loud and clear. Initially reluctant to return to horror after acclaimed performances in John Ford's "The Lost Patrol" and George Arliss' "The House of Rothschild," Boris Karloff was enamored with the opportunity to portray such a repulsive character in silky clothes and offbeat prowling demeanor, he never played another quite like it. For Bela Lugosi this Karloff villain enabled him to finally essay a heroic role, followed closely by the lead in the Sol Lesser serial "The Return of Chandu" (doing the same in "The Invisible Ray"), and even Mrs. Bela Lugosi exalted in his performance: "God he was beautiful in that!" (seven years passed before another Universal title "The Black Cat" cast Bela as a caretaker in an old dark house, but in a comedic setting). Incredibly, Universal's biggest hit of the entire year was also the one with the lowest budget, yet Edgar G. Ulmer was already banished prior to release due to his devotion to future wife Shirley, at the time newly wed to a Laemmle, working essentially on Poverty Row for much of the rest of his days, even starring John Carradine in PRC vehicles "Isle of Forgotten Sins" and "Bluebeard."
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